(Investigative Reports from Newsday)



Special Districts: The Story So Far
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Since last spring, Newsday has been reporting on the privileges offered to officials and employees of special taxing districts, as well as to appointees to town and county boards.


APRIL -- Newsday found that more than 100 appointees of various appointed town and county boards, such as Nassau Board of Assessors and the Suffolk OTB, were given free health insurance for part-time work. All but one board later voted to rescind or reduce the benefit. Read full story


JULY -- Newsday reported on the Great Neck Park District, one of the many special districts that with scant governmental oversight or attention from residents supply Long Island communities with services such as parks, water and garbage pickup. The story described how the Great Neck Park District provides top-of-the-line amenities like clay tennis courts and a newly renovated water park and pool complex while spending more per resident than any other park district on the island. Read the full story.

DECEMBER -- Newsday detailed how special districts spend thousands of dollars on cars, health benefits and travel for its officials and employees. Two weeks later Newsday further explored the pay and perks given by special districts, compensation that often dwarfs that offered in state and county government. The story told of Robert Graziano, superintendent of the Water Authority of Great Neck North, and his son Gregory, the assistant superintendent. The elder Graziano supervises a staff of just 27 people but in 2006 made $183,283 year -- more than the governor -- while also enjoying use of a car and fully paid medical, dental, vision and pension benefits. His son got $95,700 and an SUV complete with a DVD player. Read the first and second story.

JANUARY 2 -- Newsday focuses on the exceptionally generous health benefits offered by special districts. It tells the story of the Plainview water district board, which voted to retroactively expand its free dental coverage to spouses of employees and its part-time commissioners after the wife of one of its commissioners got herself braces. Read the full story

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Great Neck Park, the 'Rolls-Royce' of park districts
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After the $10-million renovation of the Great Neck Park District pool complex is completed next year, residents will enjoy attractions more familiar to water parks than municipal pools - a water slide, zero-depth entry and a lazy river.

When Park Superintendent Neil Marrin drives his 2005 Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle, he doesn't pay for gas or insurance, or the car itself. Under his contract, taxpayers foot the bill, whether he uses it for work or pleasure.

And although Nassau and Suffolk parks officials said they have not had the money to send employees to the national parks conference in years, Marrin said the Great Neck Park District typically sends five employees to the annual conference.

For years, the Great Neck Park District has inspired envy among parks professionals elsewhere on Long Island. Its clay tennis courts, waterfront theater and cruises to City Island are amenities other park managers can only dream of. District officials and residents revel in its status.

"It's the Rolls-Royce [of park districts]," said district resident Elizabeth Allen. "It's like being a foodie. Do you want a cheeseburger or Beef Wellington?"

With its $11.1-million budget serving 30,000 residents, the Great Neck Park District is the most expensive per capita of the 26 park districts on Long Island. It spends $370 per resident for parks - compared with the $54 per resident spent by the Town of North Hempstead Parks Department. Since 2001, its annual budget has gone up 57 percent.

Special districts typically fly under the radar; but as residents chafe under an increasingly onerous tax burden, state and local officials have called for greater scrutiny and reform of these little-understood government entities. Gov. Eliot Spitzer convened a commission, Newsday exposed the practice of bestowing full-time benefits on part-time board members, and recently, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi said they would push for legislation requiring special districts to post their financial information online.

While most park districts are operated by town governments, the Great Neck Park District, established in 1916, is one of a handful of independent park districts on Long Island. There are roughly 100 commissioner-run districts statewide managing everything from sidewalks to sewers. Such districts are subjected to little outside oversight. The state comptroller's last audit of Great Neck's park district, for example, was in 1998.

Hefty cost for taxpayers

The district has its own line on the tax bill, where residents pay $26.13 per $100 of the assessed value of their home each year. Great Neck residents pay an average of $450 in taxes for the park district, Marrin said. The district's facilities include the pool complex, an indoor ice rink, indoor tennis courts, a marina, a cultural center and 13 parks on its roughly 250 acres.

Although other levels of local government have curtailed some expensive practices in recent years, records obtained by Newsday through the Freedom of Information Law show substantial increases annually in spending in the Great Neck Park District. Employees still receive generous perks, district consultants have earned more than $900,000 since 2001, and the district currently has a bonded debt of $23 million to cover the cost of ambitious improvements and expansions.

"God forbid that somebody outside Great Neck have something better than Great Neck," said Stu Hochron, a Great Neck Plaza resident who said he loves the parks. "I don't understand why they have to spend so much money."

Even critics of the park district insist they love Great Neck's parks. But they argue the district should be managed less like a private club and more like the public institution it is. "They really don't want the input," said resident Ofra Panzer.

Unlike school budgets, the park district budget is not submitted to the public for a vote, but has to be approved by the North Hempstead Town Board. Last year, the town board cut $1 million from the district's $16-million bond request after residents complained it was too extravagant.

Commissioner Ruth Tamarin and Superintendent Marrin said they're doing a good job, that the park district is the perfect example of how well local control works. "We probably are the model for the county or the town," she told residents, many of whom she knew by name, at a recent public meeting. "Do it our way, and you won't have any problems with your special district."

But that local control comes with a price tag.

Of the more than $900,000 that was spent on consultants since 2001, more than $307,000 went to one financial consultant for slightly more than two years of work providing accounting and payroll services.

Among the unusual perks enjoyed by some Great Neck Park District employees are housing and cars. The district allows the supervisor of Steppingstone Park to rent a three-bedroom apartment at the estate house in the waterfront park for just $875 a month. The state comptroller has criticized such below-market rentals for public employees in the past, but Marrin said the supervisor's presence in the park provides needed security.

Free ride

Marrin enjoys the uncommon perk - stipulated in his five-year contract - of receiving a vehicle, no older than 2004, for both work and personal use. Many municipalities require employees who take home vehicles to limit their use for work.

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Water Commissioners: Paid To Play Golf
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| sandra.peddie@newsday.com  

On a sunny autumn morning last September, a number of water district commissioners, superintendents, engineers and others gathered for a breakfast meeting followed by several hours of golf at the Timber Point Golf Course in Great River.

A Newsday reporter and photographer observed the gathering, which by all appearances had no official agenda or purpose, other than to play golf. The players appeared convivial and relaxed -- at least five players who hit their balls into the rough picked them up and threw them back on the fairway.

Because the meeting was hosted by the Long Island Water Conference, a professional group of water suppliers, some of the representatives from the water districts playing golf also got paid for the day, records show. The outing was not listed in the group's schedule of monthly meetings.

The chairman of the water conference, Ken Claus, said in a prepared statement e-mailed to a reporter late Friday that the golf outing was about "building relationships."

"In addition to the numerous educational seminars and programs the Long Island Water Conference provides throughout the year, we hold an annual golf outing," he said. "The outing provides members with a relaxed environment to discuss concerns and issues, as well as share thoughts and ideas facing water providers throughout the Island. Building relationships and lasting partnerships is a crucial step in developing much needed inter-municipal cooperation between the various providers."

South Farmingdale Water Commissioners John Hirt and Kurt Ludwig charged their district $100 per diem for attending the golf outing. Ludwig and Hirt declined to comment for this story.

Karl Schweitzer, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Water Commissioners Association, said pay for commissioners is justified when they attend certain dinner meetings, such as the monthly meetings hosted by his organization. But getting paid for participating in golf outings, he said, was another matter.

"It has been going on, and it's a practice that should be discontinued," he said. "What kind of business are you covering?"

Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, whose office has released several audits critical of special districts, said commissioners should not be paid at all.

"They get paid for whatever they deem to be a meeting, and in many cases, a meeting is any place they get together to discuss business," he said, adding, "The system should be eliminated."

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Special districts: Big salaries, little oversight
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Water Authority of Great Neck superintendent Robert Graziano, left, whose salary of $183,283 a year is higher than that of the governor of New York State, and whose district-funded vehicle is washed by district employees. (Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara / Dick Yarwood)

Two laborers in the Oyster Bay sewer district, whose duties include "unskilled or semi-skilled manual tasks," each make an annual base salary of $101,000.

A recreation aide, who performs such tasks as organizing games, makes $47 an hour in the Fishers Island ferry district.

And a meter reader, a job that requires only a high school education, according to a Civil Service job description, in the Jericho water district made $93,772 last year -- nearly two and a half times the average earnings for meter readers statewide.

These are examples of pay for some employees of the scores of independent special districts on Long Island, according to payrolls and other records examined by Newsday. Along with high salaries and other benefits, the districts enjoy a high level of independence from oversight as to how they choose to spend their estimated $500 million in yearly tax receipts.

The records show there is little correlation between the level of compensation and the size of the district or authority or how significant its responsibilities. The many part-time commissioners elected to oversee the finances of many special districts themselves receive both salaries and medical insurance -- for attending meetings that frequently last less than an hour or two and that may include dinner or a golf outing.

Compared to private-sector salaries, government salaries overall on Long Island are significantly higher. Many of the special district salaries are even higher than what many other government jobs provide.

"Why is that?" said Nassau Tax Assessor Harvey Levinson. "Because they can get away with it. Basically, these districts have been running under the radar screen for the last 50 years. Most people don't even know they live in a water or garbage district."

Thomas Conoscenti, a New York University economist who specializes in public finance, added: "And most of those jobs are not accountable to anyone."

As some public officials in New York State and on Long Island have begun to scrutinize just what these districts do, criticism of their practices -- and even their existence -- has mounted. Special districts, which provide services ranging from sewers to water, are some of the literally hundreds of units of government on Long Island. While some districts have elected boards, they remain largely hidden from close public scrutiny because they are so small. Last Tuesday, more than 150 fire, sewer, garbage, park and water districts held elections that drew little voter interest; most of the races were uncontested.

Some, such as the Carle Place Water District, employ a handful of people; others, such as the Cathedral Gardens Water District and Syosset Sanitation District have boards, but no employees. Yet, the compensation given to commissioners and some employees frequently goes far beyond what is offered in county or state government, according to economists, researchers and Newsday's review of the records.

Payroll records show, for example, that Water Authority of Great Neck North Superintendent Robert Graziano makes $183,283 a year -- more than the governor of New York, who makes $179,000. The district's assistant superintendent is Graziano's son Gregory, who makes $95,700 a year. Gregory Graziano also drives a 2005 Dodge Durango, complete with a DVD player, paid for by the district.

The senior Graziano receives fully paid medical, dental, vision and pension benefits worth thousands more. He gets a 2005 Ford Crown Victoria, with gas and insurance paid for by the district and he received low-interest financing from the authority to buy a home.

On top of that, he is able to monitor security in the district and watch television on a 42-inch plasma TV, which records show was paid for by taxpayers, in his office. It was part of an $11,740 security system, but officials refused to specify the cost of the television.

Graziano is the highest-paid water superintendent on Long Island, supervising a staff of 27 people. The authority covers 7.5 miles and serves 31,400 people, according to officials.

"I think I'm underpaid," Graziano said.

Graziano said he deserved his pay because his job duties are "far greater than the average superintendent," doing such things as negotiating contracts, setting rates and discussing design issues with consulting engineers.

"It's not the amount of people," he said. "It's the responsibilities."

Critics disagree. "That's way out of line," said Martin Cantor, the director of the Long Island Economic and Social Policy Institute at Dowling College. He said some of the districts are small enough not to warrant full-time management.

For example, just six people work at Greater Atlantic Beach Reclamation, a sewer district in Atlantic Beach, according to Superintendent William Kelly. Last year, he made $117,607, plus benefits, according to payroll records. He also gets a 1998 Dodge Durango paid for by the district.

"The salary is what it is. It's not excessive," adding that he came up through the Civil Service system, accumulating raises during his 33 years on the job.

Some 31 people work at the Jericho water district. Business Manager Greg Hendrickson is paid $110,717 a year, along with a car. His compensation package includes an unusual extra -- a house. He has lived rent-free with his family in a three-bedroom house on district property in Syosset for about 20 years, Hendrickson said.

"It is a nice perk, but it also serves a purpose," said district Commissioner Nicholas Bartilucci. The district has a security company for the five-acre property, but Hendrickson's presence in the house provides additional protection, Bartilucci said.

Superintendent Peter Logan, who made $104,139 in 2006, is expected to move into the house after Hendrickson retires at the end of the month, Bartilucci said.

Government salaries overall on Long Island are significantly higher than private-sector salaries, according to E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank in Albany. The average private-sector wage on Long Island is $45,036, compared to $55,593 in state and local government, he said.

"There's no question that, on average, on Long Island, local government workers make significantly more than private-sector workers," he said.

In special districts and authorities, that generous pay is not limited to top managers. Payroll records reflect salaries for blue-collar workers that frequently outpace those offered elsewhere.

In 2006, for example, an account clerk, whose responsibilities include compiling records, among other things, in the Hicksville water district made $96,000 a year. In the Port Washington Water Pollution Control district, a sewer plant operator made $105,205. Both have been on the job more than 20 years, officials said.

The meter reader who made $93,772 last year in the Jericho water district earned nearly three times the average earnings for meter readers nationwide. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for utility meter readers nationwide is $32,040. In New York State, the average annual earnings for meter readers are slightly higher -- $37,800.

Anthony Sabino, attorney for the Bethpage water district, said commissioners consider the cost of living when negotiating employee contracts, adding that salaries may be high enough now. "We think we've gotten there. We see where the salaries are, and we'll be taking a close look a the next negotiation."

The part-time commissioners of special districts typically get paid a per diem, or per day fee, ranging from $80 to $100. That compensation covers such things as reading paperwork, attending board meetings and going to luncheon and dinner meetings or an occasional golf outing, Newsday's reporting shows.

South Farmingdale Water Commissioner Kurt Ludwig even charged his district $100 a day for attending a national water conference in Toronto with his wife for five days, including a day before the conference actually started.

Ludwig declined to be interviewed for this story.

High pay and generous benefits are not the only advantages of public jobs, said McMahon, who recently completed a study of public and private compensation. Government workers have far more job security and typically get more vacation time than private-sector workers.

"However outrageous the deal may be for local government workers on standard public payrolls," he said, "it's that much worse for people in special districts who are insulated from direct contact with the electorate."

Asked why salaries were so high, several commissioners and district managers said they tried to mirror what towns did in negotiating annual raises. And because many union employees are also in the Civil Service system, they get automatic annual raises in what is called the Civil Service "step" system, on top of union-negotiated raises.

"If an employee has been with a water district or any municipal government for an extended period of time, these increments compound ... " Bartilucci said. "They more than double their salary. That's just the reality."

Payroll records back him up, showing annual raises of anywhere from 3.5 to 12 percent -- a sharp contrast to the private sector, where raises have been more contained through wage freezes and smaller increases, economists say.

As the assistant superintendent of the Water Authority of Great Neck North, Gregory Graziano has seen his salary increase 45 percent since 2002 without any change in his job title, according to payroll records. Last year alone, he got a 10 percent increase, to $95,700.

He did not return calls for comment, but Robert Graziano said his son deserved the raises because he had been "underpaid" and that the board approved raises. He added that the DVD player in his son's car was standard equipment on the Durango. However, a DVD player is not listed among the standard features for that vehicle on Edmunds.com, an online car-buying guide.

At the West Hempstead water district, Frederick Kurz, secretary to the board, saw his salary increase 32 percent, from $70,200 in 2001 to $92,822 in 2006, even though his job title did not change. He said his job includes attending meetings, taking minutes and working on the budget.

"I have a whole bunch of papers on my desk," he explained in an interview. He added that he didn't think his pay was a lot for the responsibility of his job.

Economist Cantor took issue with such pay increases. "Most people on the Island haven't had raises like that," he said, noting that there was negative wage growth on Long Island from 2000 to 2005.

Bartilucci, who is also the president of an environmental engineering firm that consults for many water districts, said the high salaries were justified by the cost of living on Long Island.

"If you pay less salary, they can't afford to live here," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Asked whether the taxes levied to pay for such salaries didn't contribute to the high cost of living, Bartilucci said, "That's the Catch-22."

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Few notice as special districts spend millions
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